There were no rooms at the inns of Strawberry last Friday night, when 125 bicyclists stopped for the night as part of the 20th Annual 320-mile Answer the Challenge endurance ride.
Those not finding accommodations in Strawberry were offered motorized transportation back to motels in Payson. However, those more determined pedaled back down the hill.
The Strawberry Lodge had a large sign in the window welcoming the bikers and a special menu of energy food. They opened early to accommodate the riders. Cheryl Holland, coordinator of the Strawberry stopover and owner of the Windmill Corner Inn said, "These are great guests. We look forward to seeing them back here every year."
The original Challenge 20 years ago saw the 16 participants make the 320 miles in one day. Now, the event is spread out over three days, beginning in Scottsdale, it heads through Strawberry, over to Prescott and back to Scottsdale.
It is not the number of miles that makes this ride so challenging, but the climb. Every foot of elevation has to be reclaimed with each descent. All riders are on lightweight, streamlined racing bikes. The clothing is lightweight and colorful, some bearing sponsor's logos.
Landis Cycles in Scottsdale sponsors the event. Dick Landis provides four SAG (Support and Gear) vehicles. These vans carry all the gear for the riders, bike parts and snacks and drinks. SAG vehicles are posted at predetermined points along the route -- generally in the middle or end of a particularly strenuous climb. One vehicle is always following the last rider. Energy food is the snack of choice and includes power bars, energy drinks, cookies, salty things, bananas and oranges. These stops allow riders to take a breather, catch up with friends and talk about bikes.
Each rider assumes his own pace, thus the group is spread out over many miles. This is not a race. Some couples make the ride together while others have a partner with a car to offer encouragement along the way.
On the flat, riders will group together taking advantage of the benefits of drafting. Six to 12 or more bikers ride in close formation gaining up to a 30-percent energy saving advantage. Geese use this principal with their V formation of flight. The lead position changes as one rider falls back and another takes his place. These riders stay within 12 to 18 inches of each other. A rider coming up from behind and wanting to draft will say "on your wheel." Although the greatest advantage from drafting comes to the rider behind, the leader also gains some advantage due to the vacuum and pressure. The greater the speed, the more powerful the drafting effect.
"How you deal with wind resistance is the central factor around which racing strategy evolves," Landis said. "The other factor is gravity."
There are significant challenges each day of the ride. The first day, it is the climb from Payson to Strawberry. The road is narrow and the climb is steep. Mingus Mountain, a 16-mile extremely steep climb, offers the challenge for day two. Day three has a 60-mile ride across the hot desert.
According to one biker who admitted to being a hacker, there are three categories of riders on this ride: the pros, the semi-pros and the hackers. The pros use this as a training ride. The faster riders make the trip from Scottsdale to Strawberry in six hours. It might be a 9- or 10-hour ride for the hackers. The age range is from the mid-20s to the late-70s with the majority of riders in the 40s to young 60s. These are often the fastest and strongest riders. While most are from the Phoenix area, riders were here from Texas, California and other states.
Most of these "Answer" bicyclists are racers using this ride to build endurance. All are experienced, riding 100 to 200 miles every week with some as high as 400. One fellow in his 60s rides 30 hours per week. While for some, this is their first time making this ride, others have participated in all 20 rides.
The bikers are friendly and love talking about bikes, gear and the challenges. However, as darkness settled over Strawberry, no bikers were to be seen or heard. They are a quiet bunch.
Starting out the second day, a few were heard to say they were not ready for the challenge ahead. But they headed up the hill, slowly, steadily, determinedly. When they are back home, they will forget the pain and exhaustion and look back with pride at their accomplishment and ahead to the next challenge ride.